Stranger anxiety has been described as a form of stress that a baby goes through when they feel the presence of a stranger. Even though the fear of strangers is normal in children, this particular form peaks up between six to twelve months. Stranger anxiety can also be felt even in the presence of a trusted adult, such as a parent or caregiver. If not resolved, it could grow with the child and adversely affect their social life. It can be seen in the hesitation to make friends, play and socialize with other children. It is particularly prevalent amongst children who have experienced abuse or neglect in their early childhood.
Up until a baby is around four to six months, they can barely differentiate their caregivers from strangers. They will respond to actions such as smiling, laughing and similar games without paying much attention to the person acting.
At six months, the baby starts to pay more attention to familiar faces and register them. They start internalizing the looks of their caretakers and differentiating them and strangers. The appearance of a caretaker means good things to them such as warmth, food and protection. A stranger is perceived as a threat, and the baby starts developing a fear for them. As a result, they will actively resist being held by people other than their caretakers.
Most of the time, the baby will cry and throw a tantrum that may not end even when they are taken back into the arms of their ‘protectors.’ As dramatic as it sounds, some babies stop crying as soon as the said stranger walks out of the room.
At around the age of seven to eight months, babies start registering their environment. They become aware of familiar voices, sounds, smells, faces and touch. You will notice a lot of glare when you are holding the baby: they are marking your face. It will, therefore, come as a rude surprise to them if they find themselves in the hands or presence of someone who, well, doesn't have your face. During this time, the anxiety intensifies significantly.
Moving on to twelve months, it only gets worse (quite frankly.) If your baby can crawl, they will hastily do so back to your arms if an unfamiliar person comes in their presence.
The most common symptom of stranger anxiety in babies is crying. They will quickly burst into tears when they notice a new person, especially one who wants to hold them.
Some babies may not cry but will suddenly go quiet and remain so as long as the stranger is around. You may notice your baby staring at the stranger in fear. If you let the stranger take them, the tears will start coming.
Other babies prefer clinging on to their caregivers. They will have quite a firm grip on the caregiver’s clothes when being passed over to the stranger. If they can crawl or walk, the baby will quickly go behind the caretaker and place them in the middle to hide away from the stranger. They may grab their legs and lift their hands, demanding to be picked up.
Other babies will throw a tantrum, and you can notice the intensity of emotions when approached by a stranger. They may kick their legs, cry loudly and ignore any friendly cues offered by the stranger even if they are the same ones used by their caregiver.
This may all be attributed to the development of cognitive skills that help the baby tell the difference between familiar people and strangers.
As part of the baby stranger anxiety model, it has been found that a baby learns most of their behavioural reactions and attitudes from close people like the mother. If the baby sees the mother displays a negative response towards a person, they will pick it up and treat the said person the same way. It is, therefore, important to watch your reaction to situations and people whenever your baby is watching. Do not instil fear in them unnecessarily.
It would help a lot if you held your baby's hand whenever you are introducing them to a stranger. This affirms them that nothing will happen to them and that you are around to 'protect' them from the stranger.
You should also make a point of talking to the new person before they approach the baby. Let them know that your baby experiences anxiety around strangers so they should not be worried if the baby cries. This will help prevent any frustration or disappointment that comes from thinking that the baby has 'rejected' them. This also helps them prepare themselves to approach the baby slowly and patiently. Anice gift may even buy some affection!
Introducing the baby to new people often may also help the baby outgrow their anxiety. They get used to it in the long run. You can take them out to places where they get to meet new people often.
If you are bringing in a new babysitter or caretaker, let them meet the baby gradually and build a relationship in the long run. Give the baby time to adjust and understand the role of the new person as the baby sitter before leaving them together. This helps the baby familiarize and gradually get used to the baby sitter.
In conclusion, baby stranger anxiety is a collective childhood experience. It intensifies between 6 to 12 months but should reduce as the child grows up. If, however, the child's anxiety (including separation anxiety) doesn't reduce or go away as they grow, you should see the child's doctor. If not dealt with properly, it can adversely affect their social lives. Also, remember that your baby watches you for cues on how to treat anyone perceived as a stranger. Show warmth and friendliness, and they might do the same. Above all, be patient with the child and ask other people to be too.
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